“Father, Forgive Them” – Luke 23:34 & Luke 15:3-7
Introduction – Crossword puzzles
Several years ago over the Christmas season, the CBC news program, “The Journal,” had a special feature on crossword puzzles. Some people are almost addicted to doing crossword puzzles – it’s one of the first things they reach for in the morning newspaper or call up on their phone or tablet, and when they are traveling they snatch up all the crossword puzzle books they can find at the bookstore or grocery store. I generally do not accept the challenge, but I am amazed at those who create them – amazed at how many unique and unknown words they use, and amazed at the fact that most of the time crossword puzzles are symmetrical.
We can be amazed at some other crosswords, too – the words Jesus spoke from the cross, His ‘Cross-Words’. We can be amazed at what those Cross-Words reveal about His nature and the significance of His suffering and death. During these Sundays of the Lenten season, and also on Good Friday, we are going to look at Jesus’ seven words from the cross. I have taken the liberty to create a little cross-word puzzle of my own, a puzzle which includes the important words of Jesus from the cross. Each week, we will add the corresponding key word(s) of Jesus from the cross and, at the end, you will find that the puzzle contains a surprise.
1. Sin’s ripple effect
I am sure that you all, at some point in your life, have thrown a stone into a pond. When you do, it is fun to watch the water ripple out in ever-widening circles right out to the edges of the pond. You can throw the stone into the middle of the pond, but it doesn’t take long until the shore knows that something happened! Have you ever done something which had negative consequences that, like the stone in the pond, rippled out far and wide, farther than you wanted or anticipated? Perhaps you weren’t even aware of the negative vibrations, but they were there – rippling into the lives of your family, your friends, the people of your congregation, the people of your community. Perhaps you weren’t even aware of the negative vibrations, but they were there – creating hurt, hard feelings in the lives of others, maybe tarnishing your reputation, maybe creating doubt among some as to your Christianity. For example: out of innocent ignorance of a situation, you say something that offends or hurts someone – maybe you ask a friend about her husband who has been sick, not knowing that he died 10 days ago; or maybe you say something to a friend in confidence, but someone else overhears and that person takes the liberty to spread the message; or maybe you make a mess of some responsibility that you were given or betray a confidence and soon no one trusts you with anything. Sometimes it only takes the smallest word or action to ‘plop’ out wrong and the ripples spread…
There are times, too, when we don’t realize what we’re doing – what wrong, what sin – in our words or actions that might jeopardize someone’s relationship with Jesus Christ, or our own, for that matter. We call that unintentional sin. Judas Iscariot might have had the false expectation that Jesus was going to be a political Messiah, and he assumed that betraying Jesus into the hands of the Roman enemy was, in a sense, forcing Jesus to play His hand, to take the lead, to exert His power, to do His thing. Little did he realize what the consequences of his actions would be. Peter, too, at the time that he stood in the courtyard warming himself, did not understand the seriousness of his denials of Jesus: “I swear, I do not know the man!” But his first denial seemed to ripple throughout the courtyard, so that others, too, came to ask and inquire about his association with Jesus. We, too, if we were to be honest with ourselves, would have to admit that we have spoken and continue to speak words that deny that the Lord is part of our lives, we have acted and continue to act in ways that hide the fact that we are God’s people, we have acted in ways that betray the lordship of Jesus in our lives. Samuel Johnson said: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Promises! Promises! People make promises at their confirmation, at their marriage, on their sickbed, or whenever they want something from God, or from their parents, or from their spouse. We promise almost anything to get our way. It’s easy to say the words, words are cheap. People even make promises under oath and turn around and break their word. Yes, there are times when people do not realize what they’re doing…
2. The rock the Romans threw into world history
The Roman soldiers, whose duty it was to crucify Jesus, were oblivious to current Jewish religious happenings, they didn’t know what all the fuss about the Passover meant, they didn’t care about the religious charges against Jesus, and they were ignorant of the entire Messiah concept in the Jewish religion. Pilate, himself, said that he found no reason to put Jesus to death, but he was more concerned about an uprising and saving his own skin and reputation, than about justice. The Jewish religious leaders, themselves, did not have everything under control, even though they thought that what they were doing was right. They could not have anyone pretending to be the Son of God, or usurping the role of the Messiah. The Jewish religious leaders did not want competition from someone who was saying things a little different from what they were saying. Yes, all these people did not know that they were putting the Saviour of the world to a most cruel death on the cross. He was the rock which the builders – that is, the Jewish leaders – rejected, but the rock who was really the chief Cornerstone of their own faith. And the Romans certainly did not know how big a rock they were casting into the pond of world history, and what ripple effect this crucifixion would have.
In these actions and attitudes of the Jews and the Romans, we could see a parallel to the parable of the lost sheep. The Jews, especially, had wandered away from God’s clear teaching about the Messiah. They expected a political leader not a spiritual one. So, when Jesus came talking about the nearness of the kingdom of God and about the importance of people connecting with God, well, they just knew that He couldn’t be the Messiah. So they looked for ways to discredit Him, and eventually to kill Him. They had wandered away from the flock. The Romans, too, had gone beyond the bounds set for them – the bounds of justice. Rather than seeing that justice was done they succumbed to the whims of religious leaders in one of their insignificant provinces.
3. Cross-Word: “Father, forgive them.”
Just after they nailed Him to the cross, Jesus spoke His first ‘cross-word’ – “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” [Add that key word to our “Cross-Word” puzzle.] I suspect that He had them all in mind – Judas, Peter, the Jews, the Romans…. probably you and me, too!
Whoever heard of a man being crucified and yet praying for forgiveness for those who had done Him that horrible wrong? It would be like the people of Ukraine praying for the Russian soldiers that are attacking them, destroying their homes, killing their family members. But, that is the very nature of God – gracious and forgiving, not counting men’s trespasses against them. Even with nails holding Him to cross, Jesus didn’t count His crucifiers’ sins against them, but prayed: “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Someone has described God’s mercy as all those times when God withholds from us the things – the bad things – that we deserve. Well, if ever God’s mercy should have been withheld, these people should have gotten the punishment that they deserved. Yet, Jesus prayed for what they didn’t deserve – mercy and forgiveness for their cruelty, their wrong, their sin. This truly is God’s nature – He doesn’t delight in sin, but neither does He enjoy seeing people remain in sin. He wants them to be in fellowship with Him and that happens only through forgiveness of sins. Jesus wanted these Roman soldiers, too, to be with Him forever. In an unusual twist to the story, one of which the soldiers were unaware, it was precisely through Jesus’ crucifixion that their forgiveness was effected, that God’s mercy and grace were clearly shown, that the gates of heaven were opened wide. “Father, forgive them” Jesus prayed. We don’t know if any soldiers actually came to faith in the risen Saviour, but that intent was in Jesus’ heart. Oh, we do know that one soldier, the centurion who was supervising the crucifixion, after Jesus breathed His last, acknowledged that Jesus was the Son of God. Whether he became a true follower after that… well, that we don’t know.
4. We need Jesus’ Cross-Word
Now, although we are not directly responsible for physically nailing Jesus to the cross, our own sinfulness as human beings, and our actual sins, wrongs – the ripples that we have created – make it necessary for us also to look to Jesus’ cross-word “Forgive” in order to be righteous in God’s eyes. The only means of salvation, the only key to the gates of heaven and the presence of almighty God, the only way back to the Good Shepherd’s flock, the only way to be living forever rather than dying forever is through the cross of Jesus, and the forgiveness that was won in the suffering and death that took place on that cross. I need it, because I am not perfect. You need it, too. “Father, forgive them” was Jesus’ prayer for the soldiers. And it’s His prayer for you and me. For you and I, too, like the lost sheep in the parable, have wandered away from the will and the intention of God for us.
These Sundays of Lent and the midweek services give us extra opportunities to look at our lives, to reflect on how we have strayed from the Good Shepherd’s flock, to repent of the sinful ripples we have created in our own lives and in the lives of others. These Sundays of Lent and the midweek services give us extra opportunities to honestly use Jesus ‘cross-word’ as a prayer for ourselves: “Father, forgive me, for I don’t know what I’m doing… Father, forgive me, for I am not doing what you would have me do…” In fact, this word of Jesus from the cross would make a great end of the day prayer: “Father, forgive me for the sins I have committed this day.” After all forgiveness was what Jesus’ work on the cross accomplished.
5. Bible words: Sacrifice, Substitute, Ransom, Redemption
Some of the Biblical words relating to Jesus’ death on the cross reveal the purpose and the effect of His death for us.
Sacrifice: In the Old Testament, the Israelites were expected to offer an animal sacrifice as a means of dealing with their sins. A certain animal was prescribed as a sacrifice for the most common sins. Jesus, the sacrifice par excellence, was given as a means of dealing with all the sins of all people of all times and all places. Hebrews 9:26 explains: “But now [Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
Substitute: When Jesus died there on the cross on Good Friday, He died in our place, as our substitute. He was perfect and without sin, and yet He died instead of us – the ones who are full of sin. He made a great exchange there on the cross – He took the death that rightfully should have been ours; He gave us the life – the eternal life – and the holiness and the purity that belonged solely to Him.
Ransom: When someone is kidnapped, the criminals usually ask for a ransom price from the loved ones in exchange for the freedom of the one kidnapped. Jesus paid the price necessary – the shedding of His own holy and precious blood, His innocent death – in order to free us from the criminal grip of sin, death and the devil. Now, we can live the life that God meant for us to live.
Redemption: When you redeem a coupon at the store, the company that made the item buys the coupon back from you for let’s say $1. Redemption has this idea of buying back. That’s what Jesus’ death on the cross did, too. Although God had made us in the first place, He was forced to buy us back, to redeem us, because the entire human race had fallen away into sin. God redeemed us, He bought us back by the giving of His Son to die on the cross.
One of my confirmation students once asked me why the day that Jesus died is called ‘Good Friday.’ I replied that it wasn’t necessarily a good day for Him, but it sure was for us. On that day – especially when it is complemented with the events of Easter Sunday – our sins were freely and fully forgiven, and the gates of heaven were opened to us.
6. Throwing Jesus’ forgiveness into the pond of our lives
Just one more thing: Realizing that Christ’s death has worked forgiveness, once and enough for the sins of all people, and having experienced God’s forgiveness and His love personally, what are you and I to do with it?
Did you take note of the reaction in the parable when the lost sheep was found – the shepherd called his friends and neighbours together to celebrate. Did you take note of the reaction in heaven when one lost sinner repents – all heaven rejoices! I believe that the life of the Christian is to be one of joy and rejoicing, for we have the greatest gift in all the world, and we have a promise that is out of this world!
What are we to do with God’s forgiveness? Well, you remember that stone thrown into the pond?? It’s not just negative events that ripple out in our lives like the waves of water in that pond. Good things can ripple out, too! Yea! If Christ’s forgiveness has ‘plopped’ into your life, if God’s love has filled your life, the best response, the God-pleasing response, is to let that love and forgiveness ripple out into the lives of others, in all directions, to all people, in all situations. Wouldn’t it be great if people that we don’t even know would be aware that we are forgiving people? that we share the forgiveness that we know in Christ Jesus? that we love our neighbour with God’s kind of love? Once we begin the ripple of forgiveness and God’s love, its effect is multiplied all around us into the lives of others. I guess it would really be like doing the wave at a football game – our forgiveness and love, borne out of the love and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ, moves in waves from one person to another, eventually coming back to us, but moving again to others. Through our lives of forgiveness, through our lives of love, through our lives of witness to God’s saving act in Jesus Christ, God leads His lost sheep back home. And that’s great stuff! That’s where joy in heaven begins. Amen.